Tag Archives: analysis

DARLING in the FRANXX, Episode 20

Wow. There’s big episodes, there’s huge episodes, and then there’s whatever this ungodly nonsense was. So much happened in this 24 minutes that I felt overwhelmed the first time I watched it, and only puzzled out some of what was going on after watching it again the next day. I’m still unsure about a few things; whether that’s because I’m being a little dim right now, or because the events of this show do not entirely make sense at the moment, remains to be seen.

Before I get to this episode in excruciating detail, a point of clarification: I had been referring to Werner Franxx as “Papa” in these blog posts, but it’s become increasingly obvious that the term is meant to refer to APE in general. It was kind of ambiguous for a while, especially since Crunchyroll’s subs refer to Papa as a “he,” but now it’s pretty clear that APE=Papa. My apologies for any confusion, but to be fair, it was meant to be a mysterious term for a while.

Okay, now I’m going to go through this episode in more detail than I normally do, in part because it might help me figure out what the hell just happened. We open with the kiddos being briefed by the “new” Nana about an upcoming operation. I wonder if this means that the parasites and their handlers are seen as so disposable, they don’t even get exclusive code numbers. I mean, if Ichigo got killed in action, is there another 015 waiting in the wings? I guess it wouldn’t make much difference, it’s more wondering about the scale of the parasite operation. It’s actually sort of comforting that New Nana doesn’t appear to be a clone of Original Nana, which just goes to show how dark this world is.

Hiro and Zero Two are being briefed on their mission: to implant Strelizia into Star Entity, the great Klaxosaur weapon, and take control of it. Hiro asks if there’s a future for them after this operation, and the way the APE elder words it is interesting. He says that after the battle “the future will belong to humanity,” but that doesn’t really answer Hiro’s question; 02 isn’t human, and it’s debatable whether Hiro is anymore. The APE guys are liars and nothing they say should be trusted anyway, but if you want to get all rules-lawyer about it, saying that the future will be safe for humans is no guarantee of anything for our favorite couple.

Kokoro is throwing up on the regular now, so either she’s a)pregnant or b)ate a bad shrimp recently. I’m pretty sure shrimp is not part of the approved Parasite Diet, so I’m going to assume she’s pregnant. But does she know that she’s pregnant? APE erased her memories of Mitsuru (or at least, they tried to), but did they think to erase her memories of what she read in her version of What to Expect While You’re Expecting? The idea that she might be pregnant and not even know what pregnancy is anymore is pretty terrifying. Can you imagine when that baby starts kicking?

My gut feeling is that she knows; maybe the pregnancy hormones screwed with APE’s brainwashing, or something to that effect, but she’s a bit of a cypher in this episode, so we don’t know for sure yet. For the record, I expected her pregnancy to screw with her ability to pilot a FRANXX (since actually being pregnant kid of mucks up the “piloting is conception” metaphor), but that doesn’t appear to be the case.

Our kiddos have an interaction with the Nines, who seem to have a vendetta against them now. Zero Two stands up for her squadmates for the first time. Notice when she says that her friends have “their eyes set on the future,” the camera shows Kokoro’s midsection, and she tenses; yeah, she totally knows. Other than that, the most noteworthy thing about this scene is one of the Nines sneering that Papa only lets Squad 13 get away with things because they’re “necessary tools.” Uh…duh? Does this person expect this to be news to anyone? What do the Nines think they are? You can tell that these kids have no playground experience, because that was an awfully weak insult.

Klaxosaur attack! I can almost hear the collective sigh of relief from the sakuga fans who’ve been bored to shit for the last four episodes. Further provoking doubt in the efficacy of APE’s memory-erasing technology, Mitsuru and Kokoro are nearly incapacitated by saying each other’s names out loud. Was Hiro the only person that memory-erasing headset ever properly worked on? No wonder APE loves him.

Speaking of Hiro, he and Zero Two are having a romantic heart-to-heart while they prepare for the mission. They’re smart enough to know that all hell is about to break loose, so their words have proper gravity here. It’s one thing to say “If we get separated, I’ll come find you,” as a general statement; quite another when you’re about 60% sure that’s going to be necessary, and probably in about half an hour.

This is when the Klaxosaur Princess decides to crash the party, and here’s where everything starts to get muddy as hell for me. She tells Doctor Franxx that she won’t let the humans do what they want with “our child;” at first, it seems like she means Zero Two, but she doesn’t; she’s referring to Star Entity, the weapon. By the end of this episode, we know that Franxx and the Klaxosaurs created Star Entity together (that’s the only explanation that makes any sense), so…how many layers of deceit have been going on here? Has Dr. Franxx been sneaking out of the Plantation on the back of a horse-shaped Klaxosaur to go work on Star Entity, only for APE not to notice for a while? Or did they know all along, and let him get away with it because they wanted to seize control of the final product? Or maybe Franxx KNOWS that they KNOW and they KNOW that he KNOWS and…*brain explodes*

Okay, obviously I’m not smart enough for this plot twist, so we’ll come back to that later.

Dr. Franxx helpfully informs us that the Princess is the last of the Klaxo sapiens, and…what? Why is she the only one? Shouldn’t there be at least a few more to serve as a kind of ruling class over the other Klaxosaurs? I get that she’s kind of like a queen bee, singular, but it’s not clear why the race would evolve like that.

Interestingly, the Princess doesn’t kill Dr. Franxx once again, even though she easily could; I think she has some regard for him as the “father” of their creation, even if she would never admit it outright. Because now that Star Entity is finished, she probably doesn’t need him alive.

It’s kind of touching, Franxx’s doomed love for the Princess; I’m not going to be all “Werner Franxx Did Nothing Wrong,” but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find him sympathetic. Considering the pathetic state that humanity has been reduced to (which is largely his fault, but eh, details) you really can’t blame him for taking one look at the Klaxosaur Princess and saying to himself “that’s it, I’m switching teams.”

Hiro and Zero Two aren’t having much luck accessing Star Entity, then the Princess starts approaching and Zero Two freaks out. She’s been able to sense Klaxosaurs coming all along, so I imagine feeling the Princess approach must be the equivalent of hearing Godzilla walking towards you. Then we get absolute confirmation that the Princess does not think of Zero Two as her child, but rather as a “fake,” a lesser copy.

I don’t know if this is intentional or not, but there’s interesting subtext here. We just got through this whole arc with Kokoro about how children are the mark you leave on the future, and the Princess, being inhuman, rejects it. She’s not interested in Zero Two as an autonomous replacement for her; she only wants the thing created as a weapon, that she can directly control. Zero Two is more her true child than Star Entity could possibly be, but she can’t see that, because she doesn’t have a mortal human lifespan; why does she need to leave a mark on the future, when she still expects to exist in the future?

The Princess wants to use Hiro as a partner, so she kisses him, and when I say “kisses” I really mean heinously sexually assaults— it looks really violent, like she’s actually pumping some kind of fluid into him via her mouth. Everyone viewing this show through a warped lens of sexual politics just had an aneurysm, but we’ll move on. The APE guys start freaking out that the Princess is getting Star Entity, but they don’t seem to all be on the same page. I thought on first viewings that all of the APE guys turned out to be aliens, but now it seems like only maybe two of them were, and the rest were humans? It’s hard to be sure.

The Princess uses her Klaxo-telepathy to lambast the humans for stealing magma energy, and here’s where things get super-crazy. Dr. Franxx reveals that male Klaxo sapiens evolved into magma, while the females evolved into the monsters that the mechs have been fighting. So, all those times the Klaxosaurs attacked human installations, their motivation was “stop using my friends as a battery, you assholes.” We also learn that the Franxx are just souped-up Klaxosaurs, which isn’t surprising at this point. Oh, and sometimes the magma-males congeal into a fetus-like form and serve as pilots for the female Klaxosaurs, which is what resides in the core.

Okay, the “Our weapons are really just something we copied from our greatest enemy” thing is right out of Evangelion (and probably 20 other mech shows at this point), but I’m still kind of stuck on the whole “dudes evolved into magma” thing. I think we’re supposed to believe that this evolution was deliberate (since the Klaxo sapiens are said by Dr. Franxx to have “built” the Klaxosaurs as they now exist), but like…who would plan something like this? Who, in response to an existential threat, would say “You know what I think we should do? Turn all the men into a superheated fluid, bury it underground, and turn all the women into giant rampaging rhinoceroses, that’ll show those aliens who’s boss!” It’s just so bizarre I can’t quite wrap my brain around it.

The Princess activates Star Entity right in time for a bunch of purple aliens, VIRM, to show up right near Earth. So APE was infiltrated by these aliens, and APE made sure that the humans would continue killing the Klaxosaurs, since the Klaxosaurs were the biggest obstacle to taking over the planet the first time they tried it. So the Klaxosaurs have never been the real enemy and have in fact been trying to save the planet this whole time. Humans have just been dupes.

Star Entity begins kicking righteous amounts of ass, blowing up the invaders’ ships left and right, only for yet another TWIST! Star Entity has been contaminated by VIRM, who programmed it to self destruct if the Klaxosaur Princess got in the cockpit and started kicking ass. They wanted to use Star Entity, but rather than let the Princess use it, they’d sooner destroy it. And the Earth with it.

The really baffling thing right now is that I have no idea what these VIRM aliens want. Supposedly they want the Earth, but it doesn’t seem to be a big deal to them to blow it up to get rid of the threat of Star Entity. Via APE, they’ve said things about liberating the creatures of the planet (and considering they don’t appear to have physical bodies, they probably mean liberation from corporeal form), but if they can do that by blowing the planet up, why didn’t they just do that in the first place?

You could say they’ve been after Star Entity the whole time, but Star Entity was created in response to their attempt to invade Earth the first time. Are they so good at 4D chess that they knew an unsuccessful attempt at invading primeval Earth would lead the Klaxosaurs and the humans to team up to develop Star Entity, which they could then take over and use for their own purposes? But at the time VIRM invaded originally, humans couldn’t even have existed yet in this timeline– *head explodes again*

*Collects pieces of brain and resumes blogging*

So, do I have something completely wrong here, or does this not make sense? Hopefully it’ll be explained further in the remaining episodes, because I don’t get it.

In any case, Zero Two has taken a beating from the Princess, but she’s not down for the count yet. There’s a famous scene in X-Men comics where Wolverine gets thrown down to the basement of the Hellfire Club while everyone’s fighting, and everyone thinks he’s been taken out, only for him to climb his way back up while mutilating about 20 enemies in the process. I get a similar feeling from Zero Two pulling her bloodstained self together at the bottom of Gran Crevasse; she’s about to go on a rampage, and I think her Mom is about to learn that her daughter is A LOT more like her than she thought.

I’m baffled, but excited; I don’t know if the show can make all of this work in the few episodes it has left. But damn if that wasn’t a compelling episode of anime.

DARLING in the FRANXX, Episodes 16-19

This batch of episodes was dominated by the “how we got here” flashback episode, which was very reminiscent of Evangelion’s 21st episode. You might think this similarity would be a bad thing, but that episode happens to be one of my favorite episodes of anything, period, so if you’re going to copy something, that’s an excellent choice.

Seriously, at this point I think the similarities to Eva are such that it’s not that the show is “copying” Eva, but it’s very consciously using Eva as a template, and we’re supposed to notice. The scene where Karina says that she doesn’t want immortality because she’s thinking of having a baby is very reminiscent of Fuyutsuki and Yui Ikari’s first meeting, when he asks her about her future and she says she’s “thinking about getting married and having children.” The more I think about it, that scene– where Yui gives that unexpected response and Fuyutsuki looks at her with a mix of shock and wonder– is Darling in a nutshell. Like the creators took that one tiny, blink-and-you’ll miss it moment in Evangelion and created a whole show around it. I’m pretty sure that’s not what literally happened, but I love the idea of it.

Anyway, onto our beloved parasites. My girl Kokoro is not one to let the grass grow under her feet; no sooner did I say last time that the future for their world was probably about having kids instead of fighting Klaxosaurs, and she’s all in Mitsuru’s face about making a baby. The romance between Mitsuru and Kokoro happened very fast, but I find it believable; it’s hormonal teenagers, stuck in a hurry-up-and-wait situation, who have just discovered that sex exists. The implication is that this is what Papa wanted to happen too, but I don’t think he really cared about the kids specifically; I think he just wants to observe humanity in it’s “natural” state, outside of the stagnant and ossified society that he unwittingly helped create. When Mitsuru and Kokoro get their memories erased, I get the impression that he was pissed off more because his experiment was curtailed than because he gives a toss about either of them. That said, Papa seems to be the only one who’s doing good things for the kids, even if his motives are entirely self-serving.

About “Papa,” I wonder: do they call him Papa because he used his DNA to create them, and they’re literally all his children? That would make logical sense (especially because at the time parasites were being created, a lot of people were already sterilized, so he may have been one of the few people who could serve as a father), but I don’t think that’s it; my gut is telling me that 02 is Papa’s only true child. My guess is that they harvested DNA for parasite creation before everyone was sterilized, and Werner Franxx is called “Papa” simply because he was the head of parasite creation. Maybe I just don’t want to believe that all the parasites are siblings, because I think that would be a bad direction for the show to go.

Meanwhile, with 02 finding grey hair on Miku’s head and the various problems the kids have been having, it’s clear something bad is going on with their health. Maybe parasites aren’t designed to live past their teenaged years, but I think it’s more likely that the very act of piloting is sucking the life out of them. I thought that the ending was likely to involve the other kids living on after Hiro and 02 die, but now I’m not so sure about that.

This part of the show also gives us confirmation on something hinted at all along; Ikuno is a lesbian. To me, her frustration about having to pilot a FRANXX with a male partner mirrors the frustration gays and lesbians feel when they want to have a child, or otherwise having to fit within the general male/female paradigm; this gels well with what I’ve thought all along, which is that piloting is a metaphor for not just sex, but conception. If it was only about having sex, Ikuno and Ichigo could pilot a FRANXX all day long (well, assuming Ichigo was up for it), but that’s not what it’s about. They can’t create new life together, and it’s frustrating and unfair, but it’s a fact.

Apparently, if my internet sources are correct, some people have taken this scene to mean that the creators of FRANXX are saying that lesbians shouldn’t exist or something, and that’s just…that’s just…sigh….

Look, I’ve been trying really hard not to talk about the criticism I’ve heard of this show too much, but this is a good time to mention that I can’t believe just how off-base several professional anime critics have been in regard to this show so far. Yes we’re all entitled to our opinions and so on and so forth, but the criticism I’ve seen of FRANXX has been on the level of reading Lolita and then deciding that Nabokov must be advocating for everyone to go out and have sex with 10-year-olds. It’s…functionally illiterate. This is the old maxim “when you have a big enough hammer, everything looks like a nail” in action; in the anime criticism sphere, some folks have giant titanium mallets with GENDER POLITICS written on the side, and they will hammer all day long until any substance below is reduced to mush.

I should note that the moment in the second OP where 02 and Hiro embrace, and she phases through him and disappears, only for him to disappear a moment later, gives me a minor case of the chills, every time. I don’t know what it is exactly; it could be that I’m afraid the characters are going to die soon, but I think that’s very likely to happen, so I’m not really afraid of it. I guess it’s just that you can’t have a whole show be about the creation of new life, and not deal with the flipside of that; that we’re all only here for an instant.

As I write this, episode 20 has just come out; now that I’m caught up, I’m going to start doing single-episode posts. I’m apprehensive about what comes next, just because this show has so far exceeded my expectations so much that I’m afraid of how I’ll feel if it falls apart in the last stretch. I don’t think it will, but we’ll see.

DARLING in the FRANXX, Episodes 11-15

Now that we’re getting into some story reveals, my enthusiasm for this show has dampened somewhat. I’m still enjoying it a lot, but it’s not going quite where I hoped it would go.

The childhood flashback episode was almost very poignant, but was spoiled by being just a little too perfect. I can just about buy that Hiro and 02 met as children and then were forced to forget, since they were both different from the other “specimens” and thus would have been drawn to each other, but the framing device of the storybook was just a little bit much. I guess 02’s nameless caretaker cared about her enough to try to teach her something about her place in the world, but the whole story is just a little too on the nose for my liking.

I think I would have preferred it if Hiro wasn’t her original “Darling”; if Darling was a random parasite hopeful who wasn’t promising enough and was culled from the herd. Then it would be really bittersweet that 02 keeps trying to recreate Darling, because she’s latched onto him as an idea rather than a person. That said, if they’d gone that route, they wouldn’t have had a good explanation for why Hiro is so well-matched to 02 as a pilot; having ingested her blood at a young age, it seems like it acted as a vaccine, so the later trauma of bonding with her was less damaging to him than it was to the other pilots, allowing him to survive it. Still, the whole thing is just wrapped in a neat little bow, which takes away from it. I don’t want this story to be neat: I want it to be messy and visceral.

The most interesting thing to me about the childhood flashback (other than Chibi-02 being painfully adorable of course), was the fact that Hiro’s outgoing personality and inquisitive nature were seen as curious and worrisome to his handlers. Being in that kind of love-free environment wouldn’t be good for any child’s natural development, so it makes sense that the other kids weren’t exactly cheerful and curious. However, the fact that Hiro seems to be the only curious child ANYONE had encountered makes me wonder if they’ve actually been breeding these kids to be compliant. Maybe the whole reason Hiro was a “special” specimen wasn’t anything related to his parasite ability, but the fact that he’s a throwback to a time before children were emotionally stunted.

Speaking of human development, we get something that looks like a fetus inside one of the defeated Klaxosaur cores, so it looks like the Klaxosaurs are a product of human meddling with nature. I kind of hope the story is more complicated than “Man tried to make himself more powerful, only the child of his creation turned on him!” but it looks like that’s where this is going. To be fair, the idea of Klaxosaurs as the nightmare children of humans would fit in well with this whole series theme of sex/conception.

After episode 15, I’m a little confused about what’s going on with Hiro and 02, physically. Let me try to lay this out: Hiro met 02 as a child and ingested her blood, effectively vaccinating himself against her influence, then was brainwashed into forgetting her. 02 was also brainwashed, but less completely, so she still remembered the existence of her “Darling,” but probably not precisely what he looked like. So she keeps hoping every new partner will turn out to be the real Darling, only to be disappointed again and again.

So she acts like Hiro is her real Darling, but deep down, she doubts it, which comes to light when she says that he’s just fodder for her. Then after Strelizia enables the shared flashback, she realizes he is THE Darling and she’s been using him like any other partner. The thing is, even if she knew he was the real Darling, wouldn’t she use him the exact same way?

Then again, when Strelizia fully activates after the two remember their shared past, she looks different; she’s all red, like 02 is no longer fighting her monster nature. So maybe knowing who the pilot is, 02 functions differently, and as a result, is no longer draining the life out of Hiro? Part of me wishes that this had been explained and part of me is just as happy that it’s left vague, since any explanation probably would have been tedious. I think the bottom line is supposed to be, “They love each other, therefore the robot magic works SUPER GOOD now!” and trying to think about it any harder than that is probably a mistake.

The big fight against the gargantuan Klaxosaur was very effective, with the OP song doing a lot of heavy lifting. I know that playing the first OP during a climactic fight scene is an old trick, but it works particularly well here, because Kiss of Death is so well-suited to this show. I think it communicates the feeling of frenzied desperation you would feel if you were fighting for your life; Kiss me now, because we’ll probably be dead tomorrow.

And then there’s the giant baby hand and uh…I’m not sure. Maybe there’s a giant baby Klaxosaur incubating in the ground, and all the little Klaxosaurs are just there to protect it. Maybe the Klaxosaurs started having babies because humans stopped, and if the humans want to beat the Klaxosaurs for good, the answer is not fighting them, but Kokoro’s “Your First Childbirth” book. I think that’s ultimately where this is going, I’m just not sure exactly how.

Tomb Raider II, Level 2: Venice

So my last Tomb Raider-related blog post was, uh *checks watch,* seven years ago. Look, you can see this as me being lazy and abandoning a project for too long, or you can see it as me valiantly attempting to combat the view that popular entertainment is disposable by refusing to bow to the quiet tyranny of time; the choice is yours.

The Urban Problem

I have a lot of problems with Venice, in fact with this whole Venetian level set, and it makes me feel kind of bad. I know these levels are largely beloved by fans, and I wish I could feel the same. But from the first time I played this level, back in 1998, I found it tedious and frustrating, and I’ve never been able to shake that feeling. Even now, when I have the level mostly memorized and can zip through it pretty fast, I still find it frustrating.

The first problem is that urban environments present practical problems for Tomb Raider, as a franchise. If we’re supposed to be in a city, where are all the people? Well, there are lots of gun-toting Bartoli henchman, but where all the non-packing, non-insane people? Putting in neutral NPCs would probably create as many problems as it would solve, but it still feels weird to be running around a city where no one lives; it’s kind of antithetical to the whole concept of the series, really. The whole set up of Tomb Raider implies that you don’t run into any people, because they all died thousands of years ago; when you’re in a modern city, and there’s still no people, you’re reminded of the artificiality of the situation pretty bluntly.

Yes, in the back of your mind, even in the first game, you always know you’re playing a video game; it’s not like making TRII Venice look more populated would really change that. But I think it’s safe to say that Tomb Raider achieves a higher level of immersion when set in, err, tombs, versus modern environments. Interestingly I think they pulled this off better with the London levels in Tomb Raider III, since in that level set, it felt like it was about 4:30 A.M. there and Lara was exploring mostly abandoned buildings anyway, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The first vehicle you can ride in all of Tomb Raider and I…don’t like it too much. Maybe this is just me, but I feel like I’m constantly getting on an off the damn thing when I don’t want to, and it happens a lot less with later vehicles.

The second major problem is I think the level’s primary puzzle is a bit too clever for its own good. Maybe I’m just mad that I blew up Lara about a zillion times on the mines trying to clear this level as a teen, but I still think the boat puzzle is too hard to figure out without the aid of a strategy guide. I mean, this is the first TR level in history where they even give you a vehicle, and you’re supposed to figure out a)that you can completely destroy it and b)you can jump out of it at the last second before an explosion? My memory is a little hazy, but I think at the time, I thought you were supposed to improve your speedboat piloting skills to the point where you could navigate between the mines; obviously, this didn’t work out so hot for me.

On one hand, I complain that this puzzle is too unintuitive. On the other, I know that if this game were made today, NPCs and in-game prompts would probably give you about 47 hints about what you were supposed to do, and there would be no satisfaction when you solved it. Maybe I’m just never happy?

Eventually I destroyed one boat pretty much by luck, and forgot the second one existed, so I completed the level the wussy-way; swimming through the gate and completely missing the harried boat ride through half the level. Imagine my surprise when I started the next level and Lara was in yet another speedboat.

Is it possible that very few players were stymied by this puzzle, and I was just being dense? I guess it’s possible. Besides, I have to admit, when you do know what you have to do and you succeed with the timed boat challenge– complete with taking your boat to places where boats are definitely not meant to go– it is pretty darn satisfying.

The Joy of Awning Hopping

It’s hard for me to see past the negatives with this level, mostly because of bad memories from 20 years ago messing with my perception. However, if I give Venice a fair shake, there are some really nice elements here. Jumping from awning to awning is much more fun than it should be; same with jumping up to the fancy glass windows, shooting them out and then running inside. Somewhere out there, there is custom level that’s all about jumping on awnings and shooting out fancy windows on raised overpasses, and I really need to be playing it right now.

I also like the secret placement; sure, burying two little dragons in the black depths of an underwater catacomb is a little harsh, but if you haven’t figured out by this point in the game that they’ve been handing you buckets of flares for a reason, that’s on you.

Once you get this mysterious door open, that’s when the fun starts. I can never get enough of scouring dark catacombs for shiny things, especially when there are lots and lots of shiny things.

Have I mentioned that love collecting flares in this game? I feel like they’re the closest thing to money in the game, so my hoarding instinct takes over;  I’m pretty sure I’ve finished the game with 60+ flares in my inventory. It’s like a game-within-a-game to see how well I can get along with stumbling around in complete and total darkness without using the obvious tool. Hey, did you know that in a pinch, you can use your pistols instead? Lara’s pistols illuminate the area around her briefly, so if you fire them like they’re tiny little machine guns, you can almost see where you’re going for a little while there. Sadly, this does not work underwater, which is where you tend to need flares the most, but oh well.

Speaking of the swimming element, it’s cool to be swimming along, pull up on a dock, shoot some henchmen, jump back in the water and get on with your day. In practice I always get Lara shot about twice as often as she needs to and end up getting frustrated, but that doesn’t change the fact that the idea of it is cool.

Is there some kind of theme park attraction where you’re in an entirely floating city, and you can climb up on the dock to buy ice cream or something, but then jump back in the water to swim to the next attraction? Because that sounds like it would be insanely fun. I may have to stop playing Tomb Raider for a bit and petition all my local waterparks to implement this feature.

Best: Hands down, the best part of the level SHOULD be doing the timed boat race, which is really innovative and feels exhilarating when you pull it off, but as you now know, I have a love-hate relationship with that puzzle. So instead, I’m going to say that the best part is the whole sewer-like area you enter after getting the first speedboat; you may burn through flares like mad, but it’s a blast finding all of the hidden items and secrets. Those uzi clips nearly buried in the sand in a dark corner underwater…*chef’s kiss*

Worst: The excessive number of enemies in the first area, especially the one that pops up after you pull the switch in the boathouse. We’re just getting used to fighting human enemies in TR2, and you throw like five of these bozos at us? Plus mean dogs? No thank you.

Rating: Two Uzi Clips Out of Five

This is my honest opinion; please don’t hurt me.

Coming Next: Bartoli’s Hideout, where I’m going to try to put aside all my issues with Venice as a whole and just play the damned level.

(Screenshots from Katie’s Tomb Raider Screenshots; used with permission.)

DARLING in the FRANXX, Episodes 6-10

Five more episodes of FRANXX, and I’m becoming increasingly confident in my initial appraisal of the show; These themes are the real deal, and Trigger isn’t just throwing around all this sexual symbolism just to be salacious. It’s also opening up to be less about sex specifically (although that’s still very important to the show), but more about any kind of sensual, animalistic behaviors that mark humans as part of nature, and what it means when we start getting away from that.

The one thing I’m not sure I like is all the emphasis on Ichigo’s unrequited love for Hiro. There’s nothing wrong with it in general, but I feel like we’re kind of being knocked over the head with it, when it’s been pretty obvious what the dynamic is between these two from the very beginning. That said, there’s probably a reason why heartsick Ichigo is getting so much attention, so I’m going to suspend judgment until I know what that is.

Episode 6: This was actually the most typical episode, in the sense that it felt like watching Evangelion, or Gurren Lagann, or insert-popular-mecha-show here. Hiro’s miraculous recovery, spurred on by his desire to protect 02,  was predictable, but I don’t think I would’ve wanted them to do it any other way; sometimes, we use tropes because they work. This probably would have been a more powerful episode if I hadn’t already seen these things done in other mecha shows, but it was still effective.

Now I’m wondering what Hiro’s status is; having survived the three-times curse with 02, is he part-Klaxosaur now like she is? Or is there something else going on entirely? Meanwhile, the characters response to Hiro’s survival– “Oh, looks like that thing about stamens dying when they ride with 02 was just a rumor–” is a little strange. Has it occurred to any of the kids that 02 actually has killed multiple partners, and Hiro was just the first one who survived? Maybe it’s just denial; now that she’s on their team, they don’t want to believe that she is a partner-killer, even if all evidence points to it being true.

I am not gay for 02; I am a straight woman. I just want to collect screenshots of her and draw fanart and think about her all day long, okay? Please respect this distinction. Seriously, major credit to Haruka Tomatsu for doing such a great job with her lines; I didn’t even realize that she also played Asuna from SAO until I looked it up. That’s some impressive separation.

Episode 7— You know it’s a good show when even the beach episode is about 50% devoted to world-building. I was expecting to turn my brain off for this episode and wait for normal plot-services to resume next episode, but there was a lot going on here; not only in terms of what the kids discovered, but why they discovered it. I’ve been wondering what kind of an authority figure Papa is, and the first couple of episodes painted an ominous picture. However, the fact that it was Papa who sent the kids to the beach, knowing they would fall over the ruins of a town and learn something about their world, is intriguing.

It seems like he does want the kids to learn and grow beyond their role as human weapons, but is he alone in that? Maybe he had to sneak in the beach vacation because the people in charge won’t let him educate the children directly; or, maybe he has some sinister purpose in mind, and he’s picking a really round-a-bout way to go about it.

One moment that kind of kicked me in the teeth was when Kokoro finds the FRANXX version of What to Expect When You’re Expecting in the ruined town. The kids in FRANXX have no concept of sex and childbirth; what would it feel like to find out about that all at once? It’s hard enough to process even when you have years to absorb that information.

Which reminds me; of the critics who have had strongly negative things to say about this show, how many of them are parents? I’m guessing not many. Lord knows, I don’t want to make this some kind of perverse gatekeeping thing (“you can only understand this show if you TOO have borne a child!”), but I think it probably makes a difference in how certain writing choices affect you. If you saw Kokoro pick up that book and you didn’t feel anything, then it’s almost like we’re watching two different shows.

OH NO SHIT JUST GOT REAL, FUUUUUUUU~~~~~~

Episode 8— This is the kind of episode that typically annoys me, but FRANXX threaded the needle here somehow and kept it from being too obnoxious. I tend to get annoyed when kids in these life-or-death situations start acting like spoiled suburban children, but the fact that the kids actually realized how immature they were being by the end of the story made it work. Plus, it’s been made pretty clear at this point that these kinds of childish antics are what set Squad 13 apart from all the other squads, and possibly, everyone else in the known world. They’re being allowed to be childish and emotional, and I wonder how this ties back to Papa’s master plan.

We know that Squad 13 is a test case for something. Is Papa using Squad 13 to model the way humans used to interact, in the hopes that the rest of society could go back to the way it used to be in pre-Klaxosaur times? More on this later.

I remember some outrage online around the time this episode aired because of Hiro’s comments that the boys control the robots, but it’s the girls with their “frail bodies,” who take the brunt of the punishment. I can obviously see why this seems sexist, but if you’re like me and see the piloting of FRANXX not just as a metaphor for sex, but for conception (and possibly the entire heterosexual cycle), it makes a lot of sense. Stating that women’s bodies bear the brunt of the punishment during pregnancy is hardly controversial, and I think Hiro’s comment was meant to parallel how men and women function in reproduction, not just sexual intercourse.

I wonder about the conclusion the kids draw that the previous Squad 13 died in battle; that may not be correct. This show has been hinting pretty strongly that parasites don’t live to become adults, so maybe the previous squad kids aged out of peak piloting age and were unceremoniously murdered.  If that’s the kind of world these kids are living in, the threat from the Klaxosaurs seems rather unimportant in comparison.

I’m writing too much about this episode, but I also have to acknowledge the scene where 02 taunts Hiro with the kids’ underwear and runs away; her joy is infectious, and it’s scenes like that which elevate this show from episode premises like “Monster goop makes the girls’ clothes evaporate.” Even though she’s not really human, so far only 02 seems to understand what the people of this world have lost by putting aside their humanity.

Episode 9— I was distracted during this episode by the fact that I couldn’t get the part of Eva where Shinji is trapped inside Unit 01 out of my mind, and I was wondering how much of that is my fault. FRANXX obviously takes inspiration from Eva, and from Gurren Lagann (especially considering that some of the same people worked on those shows), but that’s normal; earlier shows inspire later shows, and certain things become codified as tropes of the genre. Yet, even though I know that the tropes that FRANXX is using have become general mecha tropes, not tied to any one series, I can’t stop comparing it to Evangelion specifically. I wonder if the creators of this show would be annoyed by that, or if that’s what they’re going for?

I like Goro as a character, and I appreciate his (doomed) love for Ichigo, but I’m not quite sure what to make of this episode. If the big takeaway was that the kids learned that their leadership was willing to sacrifice one of them very easily, then err…they really should have known that already. Otherwise, they haven’t been paying attention at all.

Episode 10— Oh boy. We see the society that the kids have been protecting, and you have to wonder: Why bother? Let the Klaxosaurs have it, everybody can just lay down and die.

This episode made me more confident in the idea that Papa is trying to use Squad 13 not just to protect humanity, but to change it, however I’m a little confused about Zorome’s role in this episode. There are hints that the older woman he meets is actually his birth mother, but how contrived would that be, even by anime standards? Besides, I kind of figured that with the technology they have in FRANXX, they’ve been growing the parasites in artificial wombs anyway. Maybe they do need women to give birth to children, and then in return the mothers get a free pleasure-center-stimulating machine?

This episode made it clear that the children are believed to be infected with something; whether this is some bacteria that allows them to interact with the FRANXX, or it’s a mislead for something more basic (like the fact that they haven’t been sterilized) remains to be seen. I think I’d prefer it better if the “infected” children were seen as dirty simply because their biological functions haven’t been replaced by technology yet.

So now we’re in Brave New World territory, which comes as something of a surprise to me even though it really shouldn’t. I’m torn between wanting to find out more about how dystopian adult society works in this world, and never wanting to see it again because it’s too goddamn depressing. I think 02 has the right idea; stay as far away from the adults as possible.

Hopefully I’ll be able to watch 11-15 and get my thoughts on them down pretty soon, and then I’ll almost be caught up to the outrage du jour! Exciting!

DARLING in the FRANXX Episodes 1-5

SPOILER WARNING: Not only are there spoilers for FRANXX, but also Neon Genesis Evangelion. You can talk about FRANXX without talking about Eva, but I didn’t want to.

There’s been so much talk about this show lately that I felt like it would be criminally irresponsible for me to keep ignoring it, so I’m catching up. I just finished episode 5 and so far, I’m loving it; I regret that I didn’t pick it up when it started earlier this year. It uses sexual metaphors in a very broad, obvious way, but I like that in this case. Too much anime (or fiction in general) tends to try to be coy about sexual themes, and it can become obnoxious. I appreciate FRANXX being all up-front, like “Yup, piloting the robot is all just a big metaphor for sex and relationships, let’s move on from there ‘kay?”

I wonder though: is the piloting of the FRANXX primarily a metaphor for sex, or is it more meant to be a metaphor for conception? The most notorious example of a mecha show with sexual themes is Neon Genesis Evangelion, and in that show, the primary sexual metaphor was that of pregnancy; the pilot was like a gestating baby inside of the mother, who would protect it at all costs. In FRANXX, we’ve gone backwards to the moment of conception itself. The mechs, with their unusually childlike faces, do seem to be the offspring of both parents in the cockpit, figuratively if not literally.

Compared to a lot of other mecha shows I’ve seen, there also seems to be a surprising lack of urgency in FRANXX. I don’t mean that as a criticism, but it’s just that the way the world is set up makes things more routine than we’re used to seeing. For all I know, this situation with humanity fighting the Klaxosaurs could have been going on for thousands of years already, and the squad of pilots we’re following may only be one among dozens, if not hundreds. There isn’t that “the world is going to end RIGHT NOW if we lose this battle” theme; the lives of the individual characters, except for arguably 02, are not important. They’re important to us as viewers, but you get the impression that if the whole squad died during episode 2, the only thing Papa and his subordinates would feel would be minor irritation at having to replace them.

Speaking of Papa, at first I thought his nickname was just a show of affection for the head scientist from his staff, but it definitely seems like there’s a Big Brother theme going on. The fact that the children’s prayer at the beginning of episode 5 isn’t for safety, or even for victory against the Klaxosaurs, but for Papa’s well-being, is a little bit chilling. Is Papa even fighting against the eradication of humanity by the Klaxosaurs, or is this perhaps the world he wants?

Since the humans are relying on magma for their energy, on a dried-out looking world, the implication is that the environment has been ruined. Are the Klaxosaurs a product of that (perhaps, a failed experiment in creating an alternate energy source?), or are the Klaxosaurs invaders from somewhere else altogether? What does it mean for 02 to have “Klaxosaur blood”? Obviously, she’s stronger and more agile than other humans her size, but what unholy process did they go through to create something like her?

Or maybe, when Papa and a Mama Klaxosaur love each other very much….

Congratulations, humanity, your super-risky experiment in genetic engineering has gone horribly right! Good luck with that.

At the end of episode 5, 02 seems to be in the process of turning Hiro into some kind of human/Klaxo hybrid, like herself. For some reason, he’s compatible with this process; the most obvious possible reason for this is because he was created with Klaxosaur blood too, but I think the show is going to go a different route. Something is special about Hiro, and I think how much I ultimately end up liking this show is going to depend on what his special quality is. It needs to be something more than “he was bred to be compatible with Klaxosaurs” in order to work for me. Anyway, it seems like Hiro and 02 may be the only future for humanity, but it may be a humanity that no one else recognizes as such.

Perhaps the most striking thing about this show is that it’s most central metaphor really isn’t a metaphor at all. It’s about young people using sex to stave off extinction and well, how is that a metaphor? If young people don’t have sex, humanity will become extinct. Granted, it’s hard to imagine that now, given our world’s current problems with overpopulation, but the fact remains true. Sex is what humans do to stave off oblivion, whether shiny-cool dinosaur-like thingies are involved or not.

A lot of series deal with sexual attraction as a theme, but I feel like FRANXX is dealing with (or is at least being set up to deal with) heterosexual sex on a more primal level than we usually see; the fact that sex creates the future, but we often shred ourselves to pieces in the process, in more ways than one. There’re a lot of potential pitfalls here, but I’m cautiously optimistic that Studio Trigger will accomplish here what they couldn’t quite do with Kiznaiver; a show about human relationships, particularly sexual ones, with real teeth and bite to it.

Or horns, if you will.

Winter 2018 Anime and Wholesome Masculinity

One thing I’ve talked about before is that while today’s critics love to talk about “toxic masculinity,” in popular media, no one ever seems to call attention to it when we get the opposite of that. Now I guess it’s nice if a show doesn’t have toxic masculinity at all (depending on what that even means.) But let’s go one step further: what if a show not only avoids toxic, evil, ugly masculinity, but instead has wholesome, healing, warm-and-fuzzy masculinity? Is that even possible?

Because, it could just be me– or more specifically, it could just be the shows I’ve chosen to watch this season. But it feels like, this anime season, there are a whole lot of male characters who are portrayed as masculine while still being allowed to be compassionate, vulnerable, nurturing people; furthermore, these traits are seen as being part of their masculine nature, not exceptions to it. I can’t be the only one who’s noticed.

Before we go any further, important disclaimer: I haven’t been watching everything this season. Maybe if I watch DARLING in the FRANXX, it’ll turn out to be a bunch of shirtless dudes beating their chests and firing machine guns or something? (I admit, I have no idea what that show’s about.) I’m just calling attention to a pattern, not claiming that it covers every anime airing.

With that out of the way, here’s a list of shows this season that feature “wholesome masculinity;” a term I coined because “wholesome” is an antonym for “toxic.” The fact that I had to invent a term for it is kind of interesting by itself.

March Comes in Like A Lion— You could probably talk about masculinity in relation to almost every arc on this show, but I’m going to focus on the recent bullying arc. When one of the Kawamoto sisters is bullied in school, main dude Rei takes it upon himself to help her, only to confront his own powerlessness. At first he thinks of ripping apart the bullies “limb from limb,” but realizes that even if he were actually to do such an absurd thing, it wouldn’t help Hina at all; just present her with a different kind of problem. He then considers using his money (since, as a pro Shogi player, Rei has a lot more cash than a boy his age typically would), only to realize his mistake; even if he were to give Hina money for a private school or private tutors, she wouldn’t accept it, and he’s not going to try to trample her pride. Basically, he soon realizes that force, in any form, won’t solve anything.

While the failure of his early attempts at helping Hina do frustrate him, instead of letting that frustration fester, he eventually comes up with another solution; to simply be there for Hina, as much as possible. He’s there for her in a very physical sense, showing up while she’s on a school trip in Kyoto just to say hi and give her some medicine. But he doesn’t shadow her, doesn’t overstep his bounds; simply lets her know that he’s there for her, and demonstrates it repeatedly. When the bullying situation is eventually resolved by the school administration, Rei is left feeling like he didn’t do enough for Hina; naturally, she knows better.

I don’t want to say that serving as a pillar of support for someone else is a uniquely masculine trait, because that’s clearly not true. However, there is something masculine to me about Rei’s way of going about it; what he primarily offers is his very presence, his physical constancy. He can’t really help Hina by talking out her problems with her (he doesn’t know what to say), but he can help by simply being there when his presence might offer some comfort. That kind of silent vigil, as though saying “I won’t interfere in your life because I know it’s not my place, but I will ALWAYS be there for you, even if being there is literally all I can do,” is a way of using your power to help protect someone while making sure that they won’t ever feel like they need protection from you. It’s the “toxic” idea of the controlling/dominating male turned inside out.

It’s driving me crazy that I can’t find a reference to the quote anywhere now, but I could swear I remember reading that Kentarou Miura, creator of Berserk, once said that March Comes in Like a Lion was one of the “manliest” manga around. It seemed like an odd take at the time, especially considering the source, but I think I’m beginning to see what Miura meant.

Sanrio Boys–As an advertisement for Sanrio products, I’m not sure if this show is working out so hot; we don’t learn a whole lot about the different brand characters, and the episodes tend to fall on the dull side. The show’s overall quality aside though, it makes a few important points about masculinity, and does so repeatedly.

There’s the most basic message, which is that males who like cute or “girly” things don’t have to be any less masculine than males who don’t; an appreciation of something traditionally feminine does not cancel out masculinity, and boys should not carry around any fear that it somehow might. However, the situation is complicated by the fact that all of the Sanrio characters represent points of vulnerability for the main characters. For Kouta, Pompompurin represents his bond with his grandmother, and his fear that he let her down before she died; for Seiichirou, a driven overachiever who is pushed hard by his father, Cinamoroll represents the care-free childhood he was forced to abandon too fast. Each boy has a similar story.

The Sanrio charms the boys carry around aren’t just cute tchotchkes they collect as a hobby, but constant reminders of their vulnerabilities. Once you get past the “it’s okay for a dude to have a Hello Kitty keychain” level, the show really seems to be about how becoming stronger is about accepting and embracing your vulnerabilities, not running from them; that you don’t truly become strong until you stop being afraid of weakness.

Appropriately Ryou, the least traditionally masculine looking of all the boys, has the most problems with accepting this, because he has the most to lose. As a beautiful boy who gets babied by his older sisters, he feels like he has to fight for every shred of perceived masculinity he can get; he doesn’t think he can afford to admit to liking cute mascot characters the way the muscular guys can. When Ryou finally admits to and accepts his love of Sanrio, it seems like he’s become more mature and more manly in the process, because he’s exploring his vulnerability instead of running away from it.

As I said above, it’s probably not a great show. But as a delivery vehicle for the message “Masculinity doesn’t have to be what you always thought it was,” it might just be peerless.

How to Keep a Mummy–This show is mostly just an adorable little ray of sunshine, to be enjoyed and not really thought about much; really, I think trying to analyze this show too much would be doing it a disservice. However, that said, I don’t think I’m being too analytical by pointing out that the male characters on this show are portrayed in caretaker roles; they’re not changing diapers, exactly, but taking care of the little monsters that fall into their lives requires a fair amount of nurturing. Some are more nurturing than others, but there’s no question that they’ve been assigned caretaker roles.

Now that I think about it, it’s actually kind of surprising that this wasn’t a “cute girls doing cute things” series; seeing cute girls take care of cute little monsters sounds like it would be very marketable. In any case, I’m glad the series turned out this way instead. Mummy isn’t didactic about breaking apart old-fashioned ideas about masculinity the way Sanrio Boys is, but just by putting the boys in caretaker roles– in a rather casual way– it challenges negative masculine stereotypes. There is one female main character, but considering the fact that she isn’t treated differently at all, I don’t feel like there’s anything to add about her.

School Babysitters–Now in this anime, boys are changing diapers. Again, we have boys in nurturing caretaker roles. However, one interesting wrinkle that Mummy doesn’t cover is we get to see how the boys are perceived by their classmates as caretakers. Despite the fact that he chases after toddlers and sings lullabies all day long, Ryuuichi is considered one of the hottest guys in school by his female classmates– and the other boy in the babysitting club is a close second (although Hayato isn’t such a great babysitter, but that’s a topic for another time.)

So, not only does taking care of babies fail to hurt Ryuuichi’s chances with the opposite sex, it seems to be helping; the implication is that the girls like him in no small part because he’s so demonstrably nurturing. I don’t know if it’s fair to say that the girls consider him more masculine, but they certainly consider him a nicer and more interesting person than a lot of his classmates. I don’t think the show is really trying to say “take care of babies and chicks will totally dig you, because kindness trumps toughness in manly appeal,” but hey, there are worse takeaways.

Today’s Menu for the Emiya Family– This show is an odd-duck, the oddly bucolic food-porn spin off of the Fate/Stay Night franchise. I don’t have a lot to say about it other than the fact that main guy Shirou is constantly cooking for the other people in his life; primarily women, like Rin, Saber, and Illya. Sometimes the girls cook as well, but Shirou is clearly the main chef.

Being a chef certainly isn’t anti-masculine (as watching any amount of celebrity chef television will show), but it is notable that Shirou’s whole role in this show is to provide food for the ladies in his life. Rin could be all like “Bitch, get in the kitchen and make me a sandwich!” and he would just shrug, because he’s already in the kitchen making her ten sandwiches.

Laid-Back Camp– Now we’re getting into shows that don’t even have much of a male presence, but what presence there is has some significance. There are barely any male characters in Laid-Back Camp; the only one who makes much of an impression is Rin’s grandfather, the man who gave her her first set of camping equipment. So Grandpa decides to inspire his granddaughter not by getting her some cutesy little present, but a tent. So she can go out and camp, alone, independent, in the wild.

Apparently the concept of trying to limit his granddaughter’s autonomy for her own protection has never occurred to Laid-Back Grandpa. He must have missed that day in Toxic Masculinity class.

A Place Further Than The Universe– Another show with a minimal male presence, but that absence is interesting in and of itself. The Antarctic expedition is led by women, but while the civilian expedition is considered controversial in the world of the show, the gender of the leadership seems to have nothing to do with it. People take issue with the fact that it’s a civilian expedition, or that the finances are too tight, but it doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone to be worried that the leadership is all-female; it’s just a non-issue. You would think there would at least be that one token dude who’d say something like “In a tough place like Antarctica, you need a MAN’s strength!”, but the show doesn’t even bother with that.

I like this show, in part because it’s one of the relatively few shows where having the leads be four teen girls actually accomplishes something other than ticking a demographic box. It doesn’t have much to say about masculinity, but I think it’s worth noting that it doesn’t feel a need to, even in passing.

Ms. Koizumi Loves Ramen Noodles– Okay, including this here is really a stretch, since it’s only tangentially related to the theme of this post; maybe I’m trying to justify to myself the fact that I’m still watching it. However, I do think it’s interesting that the kind of stereotypical “dim guy who just doesn’t get that the pretty girl isn’t interested in him,” character is another girl. All of the creepy behavior targeted towards Koizumi is from Yuu, her female classmate; even when it seems like a guy is after Koizumi, it’s a false alarm and they’re more interested in the ramen she’s eating.

There is some creepy, arguably even toxic behavior on this show, but pretty much all of it comes from Yuu; the guys are pretty blameless. I think guys are sometimes surprised by how much ramen Koizumi can put away, but that has more to do with respect for the laws of physics than gender stereotypes, probably. Anyway, it’s not that this show has anything particularly meaningful to say about toxic masculinity, wholesome masculinity, or otherwise, but it’s kind of cool (in a weird way) that Yuu is providing us with some rare toxic-femininity. How’s that for representation?


So yeah. The next time I hear about how anime is just chock-full of toxic masculinity, I want to hear an explanation of this season. Like, did a whole bunch of anime writers just wake up and forget to be toxic one day? Something in the water? I need to know.

Being an Anime Fan is Too Easy Now; Let’s Make it Harder

At a local comics store recently, I found something totally unexpected on the shelves: a used copy of Anime: The Berkeley Journal of Japanese Animation, Issue II. It’s a magazine from 1991, published by a Berkeley-based anime fan club, with a lovely picture of Gainax’s Nadia on the cover. The book is mostly comprised of episode scripts and summaries for Nadia and other contemporary shows, so it doesn’t have a whole lot of value as a magazine (no fascinating articles on anime from an early-’90s perspective), but it was such a cool little piece of anime history that I had to pick it up.

I’m assuming the reason why the book is mostly scripts is because the fans who read this journal were watching Fushigi no Umi no Nadia on raw VHS, taped off of Japanese television, and needed the scripts and/or summaries to follow what was happening on screen. That got me thinking about how much danged work it was to be an anime fan back then; anime didn’t show up to your house, you had to go to it. You had to go to club meetings, to watch grainy copies of a show on a tiny screen in a foreign language with no subtitles, and the only way you could understand what was going on was if you followed along in your guide, which needed to be specially designed and printed by other fans.

And the fans who made these zines and attended these viewings were the lucky ones, because at least they had access to something; in most of the country (basically anywhere that wasn’t NYC or California), the only option was to buy tapes for $34.95 for anime that had come out years ago. This was one instance where geographic privilege was very powerful, because only people on the coasts were likely to even see a show like Nadia anywhere near the time it aired on Japanese TV.

Compared to now, obviously it’s like night and day. I can load up Crunchyroll or Netflix and gain access to more anime than I could possibly watch; not just the old classics that have gained popularity in the West, but most of the same shows that are airing in Japan now. If for some reason you don’t like streaming media, you can buy anime box sets on DVD and Blu-Ray for a fraction of what anime used to cost decades ago, and the visual and audio quality is vastly superior. We are living in an Otaku Paradise…okay, the fact that CR now has something close to a monopoly on anime streaming is not good for consumers, but nevertheless, compared to 1991 we are living like royalty.

And yet, I can’t help feeling we’re missing out on something. When you have to work that hard to do something, you invest in it more, and therefore get more out of it. The Berkeley journal era was before my time as an otaku– I was still into original My Little Pony and She-Ra: Princess of Power back then– but later on, during my teen years, there was still a much higher level of risk involved in being a fan. Anime tapes cost $29.99 or $34.99; when I went to the store, I could only afford to buy maybe one, and it was a serious decision. And if I bought an anime I didn’t like, well, by the time I’d finished watching the tape to death, I would have found something I liked about it. I’d invested way too much in anime to just watch the tape once and throw it in a drawer somewhere.

Still, when I did buy a tape and bring it home from the mall, there was that bubbling excitement; I got a new anime! A whole new anime, maybe even with multiple episodes on it! My anime collection was increasing! There’s nothing like that excitement today; partially because I’m old and jaded, but even young fans don’t feel that same sense of excitement that I once did if they have access to nigh-unlimited streaming anime, I don’t think. I don’t see how they could.

I need to be careful here…it’s true that when you have less, you appreciate it more, and that’s the phenomenon I’m talking about. Yet that comes dangerously close to saying “things were better back when they SUCKED,” which is just stupid. I wouldn’t want to go back to the time when I spent $30 for one episode of the Oh! My Goddess OVA, no matter how excited I was to bring that tape home. No, things are better now, but I don’t think any of us are quite as invested and passionate in anime as fans were circa ’91, or even 2000; it’s just not possible. It’s become too easy, too automatic to watch new brand-new anime.

What I’m wondering now is if there’s any way we can somehow nurture the same passion fans had back when anime was a scarce, precious resource, but without making people jump through ridiculous hoops to cut off access. I mean, I suppose you could make some kind of “Old School Anime Challenge,” where people could opt-in to try to live like an old-school fan for a while and only watch one (raw) show per season or something*, but that seems more like a silly exercise in masochism than anything else. Unless some cataclysm destroys the internet and sends us back to the VHS-and-Betamax days, we can’t return to that time.

I was kidding in the title of the post about how we should make it harder to be an anime fan; obviously, we don’t really want to do that. But I think we should maybe be less forgiving of those who take anime for granted; those “fans” who talk about how every show sucks, how in general anime sucks, how people who are really into anime suck. Obviously, these people have the right to watch anime if they want (although why they even want to, when they apparently have such a low opinion of it, is an open question). But we don’t have to take their opinions seriously either, which is what we’ve been doing for the past 15 years or so.

I don’t really have a plan here. I’m going to be thinking about ways to be more passionate and appreciative as a fan, the kind the Berkeley Anime Club would have recognized, without going to another extreme and becoming a completely non-critical anime zombie. If opening your browser to watch all the latest anime from this season has started to feel more like a chore than a privilege, maybe you should give it some thought too. It could be that you’d be better off watching less anime, only spending time with the stuff you really love, or maybe you could try to have a different perspective on what you’re already watching.

All I know is, this feeling where anime is cheap and disposable is icky and I don’t like it. I’m not going back to hoarding VHS tapes, but I’m going to try to act a little bit more like the person who thought that spending all of her babysitting money on anime tapes was a good idea.

*Only if you live in NYC or California though: if you live anywhere else in the world, you will watch reruns of Golden Girls and you will like it.

Are Video Games Art?, Part III

Let’s take a look at some of the arguments for why video games can’t or shouldn’t be art. These are only the arguments I’ve personally encountered, so I could be missing a lot here. Feel free to provide other arguments in the comments (either in the spirit of “This is why your whole series of blog posts is wrong,” or “This is what my idiot cousin from Philly says,” either is fine with me.)

  1. Video Games Can’t Be Art Because They Are Items of Consumer Electronics and Must Be Judged on That Level

This is, by far, the most sensible argument against games being art, and the one that’s creating a lot of friction among gamers right now. We’re dealing with clashing paradigms that don’t play nicely together.

An example: You can look at the Mona Lisa for a couple of seconds, and unless you’re a real art buff, at that point you’re done with it. Still, despite the short engagement time, that image will probably be ingrained within your mind for the rest of your life, you’ll see references to the Mona Lisa for the rest of your life, and the painting’s value is considered priceless, beyond rubies. If you only engaged with a $60 game for a few seconds, when you were expecting 20-60 hours of gameplay (or even several hundred hours, if you just bought an in-depth SRPG like Disgaea), you just got ripped off.

In theory, someone could make a game that was five seconds long and have it be priceless, but due to the differences between the visual arts and interactive media, that’s highly unlikely. This whole idea of judging something based on how much time it occupies relative to it’s price is something that doesn’t gel well with art appreciation as a concept. No one ever goes to a museum and complains that the exhibit sucked because they only stood in front of each painting for a moment.*

And yet, other mediums have been dealing with this for years, and that somehow doesn’t disqualify them from being art. Films are judged in part by how they use their runtime, and whether they’re an entertaining or informative use of 2 or so hours; a film that seemingly wastes 2 hours of your time is considered a rip-off. However, just because films can be judged in this manner, and are judged that way more often than not, no one then counters that cinema can’t be art. It’s simply different ways of judging the same thing; you can judge film as a consumer product, but that’s not the only viewpoint there is. If this works for film, why shouldn’t it work for games?

One thing fairly specific to games that I don’t believe applies elsewhere is the fact that a game has to be a functioning piece of software. If the X button is jump, the character better jump 100% of the time, not 75%, and the graphics better not bug out every time you enter a new room. A game could have the most brilliant artistic ideas imaginable, but if the controls don’t work, it fails as a piece of consumer electronics, and therefore as a game.

There’s some wiggle-room here; some games with slightly wonky controls and bug issues are often given a partial pass if the content they feature is otherwise high-quality. But in general, a game has to work as software first.

The problem is people think that a game can fail as software, but then use “art” as an excuse to completely avoid responsibility for its failures. “Oh the game is buggy as hell, but what a wonderfully nuanced look at a romance between two one-armed seamstresses in the 1730s!”

And you know what? That happens (not the seamstresses game, although now I’d kind of like to see something like that). Games can fail either in controls or amount of content and use art as an excuse. Sure, it’s a five-minute long walking simulator that costs $60, but dammit, it’s art! You can’t put a price on art!

Actually, you can, and being classified as art isn’t some magical Get Out of Jail Free Card that makes everything okay.  Because you see, bad art exists. If your five-minute long walking simulator isn’t interesting to play and is overpriced, it’s still art; it’s just bad, terrible art that isn’t of much consequence.

Basically, once you accept the premise that art can be bad, you lose the problem with art becoming a failsafe justification for anything. An “art game” can be artistic and also bad, and the idea that priceless art only requires a few seconds of active engagement simply does not apply if the art in question is not good. You can judge games as consumer electronics, and you can judge them as art, but if it fails on the first level, chances are it’s going to fail on the second level too, because the medium is the message. If something has great artistic value in regard to music and visuals or whatnot but fails as a piece of interactive media, chances are it shouldn’t have been made as a piece of interactive media.

2, Video Games Can’t Be Art For STRUCTURAL REASONS Having To Do With Authorial Intent

I first read this in a newspaper, in a film critic’s column. It was a small, regional paper, so it wasn’t like this was coming from a famous critic whose name would mean anything to you. The argument was basically that film directors make choices, these choices create certain responses in the audience, and within these choices we find the art of cinema. In video games, people make their own choices, so games aren’t art; they are simply entertainment.

Okay, so…where do we even start with this? It’s contingent on the idea that game creators don’t make choices. Like, someone just starts making a game, throws the telephone-book sized design document out a 100-story window, and says “let’s do whatever, no big.” I could say that this might be true if you’re just screwing around in RPG Maker, but I have screwed around in RPG Maker a lot, and I’m pretty sure it’s not true even then. This argument is just complete, utter nonsense.

The problem is that it uses intelligent-sounding terms like “structural” and “authorial intent,” so people still get snowed by it. I find most of the ‘intellectual’ arguments against games being art are all very much like this; they might sound logical at first, but they make less and less sense the more you think about them.

3. Video Games Can’t Be Art Because They’re Addictive

Video games can be very addictive, but if you don’t think reading good books can be addictive too, man have I got a nice bridge to sell you. It’s not exactly the same thing; games tend to create more of a dopamine rush than reading does, making them more addictive for many people. But so what?

Video game addiction can be a real problem, and it’s something we’re going to have to grapple with more and more as virtual worlds become more important in our lives. But it’s irrelevant to the question we’re trying to answer.

4. Roger Ebert/Hideo Kojima/Insert Famous Person said that Games are Not Art

I have a lot of respect for late Roger Ebert, and many people doing media criticism today could learn a lot from him. That said, his medium was film, not games, and he freely admitted that he didn’t play games or know much about them. You can have all the respect in the world for Ebert as a film critic without thinking that his opinions on all other media were equally valuable.

Hideo Kojima though…man, that kind of gets me. I mean, the only excuse for most of Metal Gear Solid 2 is art; if you’ve played it, you know exactly what I’m talking about. So I don’t really understand where Kojima’s coming from there, but what’s more important is, no one person– no matter how famous, no matter how talented– is qualified to be the sole arbiter of what is and is not art.**

5. “I Don’t Need Games to Be Art.”

I’ve heard this one from several people lately, and I think I know what they mean, but the logic has already struck me as a little odd. I mean, I don’t NEED for Van Gogh’s Starry Night to be art either; some snooty agency could put out an international bulletin, “Starry Night NO LONGER ART!” and it wouldn’t cause me to think that my needs had been compromised; my needs are pretty irrelevant to the whole situation.

What people mean when they say this, I think, is “I don’t need the intellectual validation of games being considered art; it’s okay with me if games are just entertainment.” This viewpoint depends on believing in the art/entertainment divide, and I already explained in Part 1 why I don’t buy that. So in essence, while I think I know what people mean when they say this and I see the validity of those feelings, the reasoning itself is irrelevant to the question. You might as well say “I don’t need Nutella to be a sandwich topping,” or “I don’t need Die Hard to be a Christmas Movie,” (yeah, I went there.)

Sometimes people say this because they find the whole debate tedious as hell and want to move on, and given how these discussions tend to go on social media, I can’t say I blame them. But the debate doesn’t stop existing just because you happen to be tired of it, you know?

6. Games Can’t Be Art Because [Insert Bad Game] Exists

“LOL, you think games are art? Look at this screenshot from Custer’s Revenge, and try to say that with a straight face. Oh and Superman 64 LMFAO CHECKMATE.”

As we’ve already covered, bad art exists. I would bet money that right now, there are at least 10 nearly-blank canvasses hanging in museums all over the world, with one tiny dot of black  paint the only point of interest. And the titles are something like “The Overpowering Oppression of Whiteness,” or “White Supremacy, Visualized,” or even “Unbearable Loneliness No. 8.” Chances are, if you’ve ever been to an art museum even once, you have seen this sort of thing. Lots of it.

This is terribly lazy, cynical art, but it doesn’t invalidate painting, or the visual arts more generally, as an art form. It may lead you to wonder about the motives of some museum curators, but that’s a different problem.

————————————————————————————-After going through it all, the only genuine area of concern we seem to have is the one about the expectations for consumer electronics and the expectations for art being different things at this point in time; that is changing, however. Every other argument against games being art seems to depend on some kind of false technicality, an appeal to authority, or pretending that bad art is something that doesn’t exist. I don’t see how you can be a logical person and find any of these arguments convincing.

And yet, after all this, I’m not entirely without sympathy for those who don’t want Tetris included in the hypothetical World Pantheon of Art. There’s something special, something refined about sitting down with a 19th-century novel that I don’t get from a JRPG, no matter how good the game is. There is something special about the texture of paint on canvas, the sound that comes out of a beautiful brass instrument, the mesmerizing nature of classic film. These are all special things.

I think people are afraid that if we allow games to be classified as art, we are somehow making all of the above less important, less special. And if you’re worried about that, games qualifying as art can seem extremely threatening. But we have to face facts; there is no good reason why games aren’t art, and if that makes us have to reconsider the value of other art forms and how they stack up against the interactive version of themselves, then that’s a challenge we’re going to have to grapple with whether we want to or not. Right now, I think a lot of people are running away from that challenge, and we can’t afford to anymore.

*This does somewhat work with music, because if you went to a concert and it was only five minutes long, you’d probably feel pretty cheated. That doesn’t mean the one song that the orchestra played during that five minutes wasn’t priceless, though.

**Well except for me, obviously. I wrote these blog posts and everything.

Are Video Games Art? Part II

Art Is Cooperative

To illustrate how the viewer always customizes the experience of art, let’s turn away from videogames for a moment and look to something that is clearly “Art with a capital A,” painting. There’s a Kandinsky painting called Inner Simmering that I have a special connection with. I don’t know what Kandinsky intended with the painting; if I ever read any sort of commentary on it, I’ve long since forgotten. However, for me the painting is about the turbulent feelings of going from childhood to adulthood.

When I was 11, my mother took me to the Guggenheim Museum to see a Kandinsky exhibit. I was tremendously excited to be going to a museum and not a “kids” museum; a serious art museum for sophisticated, cultured adults. Inner Simmering was the painting that stuck in my mind; I felt like I was “simmering,” boiling over with excitement at taking the train, then the bus, then going to the museum, then going to a trendy cafe for lunch, all being treated like an adult and seemingly being initiated into this beautiful adult world of symposiums and garden parties. But I was also still a child, and I was a little afraid, worried the wonderful day would somehow fall apart, and my mother would lose me somewhere. Maybe I’d get lost in the city and end up begging in Central Park, or run over by an angry cab driver; there were dangers everywhere. My stomach wouldn’t stop churning.

Even now, over 20 years later, I can’t look at an image of that painting without thinking of the “simmering” feeling I had that day, the day when I felt my childhood and my adulthood bumping into each other in the pit of my stomach. This feeling was probably not what Kandinsky intended, but I think most appreciators of art would agree that my personal interpretation is a valid one; that, without getting into a tiresome “Death of the Author” debate, it’s widely recognized that the viewer’s experience of every work of art is customized to their own experience; not by choice, but by necessity. I can never be in Vassily Kandinsky’s head, only my own.

Returning to games now, I have the same kind of customized experiences. Tomb Raider was about the fantasy of overcoming my own natural timidity and going out to explore the world, maybe not ancient tombs but, say, hiking on a local trail without fear. Parasite Eve was about a fantasy version of Manhattan, a Manhattan that, while being full of monsters, was mostly devoid of people, meaning I could explore at my own pace; something I’ve never felt able to do when I’ve actually been in real-life Manhattan (and to this day, I feel far more at home in PE’s horrifying version of Manhattan than I do in any of the actual locations featured in the game, despite having visited many of them several times.) Final Fantasy VII was about…Final Fantasy VII was about a lot of things, and I don’t want to go on for 30,000 words here, so I’ll leave it at that.

I’m pretty sure Vagrant Story was somehow about sex, but I’m still figuring that one out; yes, Ashley’s famous pants played a role there, but that was only part of it. .hack was about trying to figure out why imaginary items in imaginary worlds were so important to me, among other things, and I still haven’t cracked that one; I keep replaying the .hack quadrilogy once every couple of years, hoping to figure it out. In fact, I think one of the reasons why I’ve never been able to get into World of Warcraft is because I’m still waiting for the simulated MMO of .hack to reveal whether or not I should care about real MMOs or not.

I think everyone has these kinds of personal experiences of games; they may not all be as elemental as my association with Inner Simmering, or even Parasite Eve, but they’re still there. However, this is where we get into how videogames differ from other media; because while we all perceive a painting differently, we’re all still standing there in front of the canvas, or the browser; our “participation” as it were, is all in our heads. In videogames our different experiences are acted out, sometimes in relatively simple ways (ex. taking a different route in a platformer), and sometimes in more complex ones, like purposely playing the game “wrong” to create a different experience. In games, the cooperative nature of art– something that has always existed– can be taken to the next level.

My Affair With Yuna

Screenshot taken from Youtuber Hellbent Revenge’s Yuna Only Challenge video.

Time for a confession: while I’ve never recorded myself doing Super Mario Speed runs or tried to beat Resident Evil in under 2 hours with only the knife, I am a challenge gamer at heart. In fact, I am the originator of the Final Fantasy X Yuna-Only No-Summoning Challenge.

*Pause for most people to go “the hell’s that?” while everyone who’s actually played FFX winces in terrible, sympathetic pain.*

For a while after FFX came out, people were making up all kinds of difficult challenges for the game, like the No Sphere Grid Challenge and the Tidus-Only Challenge. This sort of thing is pretty common among Final Fantasy fans in general, but it seemed like this trend was reaching its peak around the time X came out. While eventually every character had their own solo challenge, for years, Yuna was left out. Yuna was considered a bad character to try to solo with, because the whole premise of the game was that she was too weak to survive without protection. Yet, if you allowed her to summon her Aeons, then she became the most powerful character in the game*, completely destroying the “challenge” element of a solo run. The conventional wisdom was that a solo run that allowed summoning was too easy (and given the length of the summoning animations, too tedious anyway), while prohibiting summoning made it impossible.

Sometime in 2006, during a cold Albany winter (which was probably more relevant to all of this than you might think), I had a dangerous thought: What if a No-Summoning run with Yuna wasn’t impossible, only extremely difficult? I had to find out.

People on Gamefaqs were skeptical. How will you get past this boss, they asked, how will you survive this section where the enemies can kill poor little Yuna in one hit? And yet, I always found a way. I discovered that if you were willing to spend enough time leveling up Yuna by herself, you could pretty much brute-force your way through the entire game. Between farming for rare offensive weapon drops and power-leveling to get Yuna a support spell she wouldn’t normally learn until the end of the game, it all became possible. Check out this FAQ for more details; the user named Crystal Bangle is me.

What this meant, practically, was that I spent dozens of hours in front of the TV, staring at Yuna’s back. It was a time in my life when I needed a distraction, and did I ever find one. It was also a time when I felt very alone; I had moved to Albany after college with high hopes of building a new life for myself there, only for my few preexisting relationships to sour, while I was stuck in a dead-end job where I never met anyone. It felt appropriate to have Yuna’s companions run like cowards and leave her alone to face the monsters; it felt right for her to be all alone, hour after hour.

Even though I knew I was intentionally playing the game wrong, doing something players weren’t supposed to do, it still colored my perception of the game’s story. When the characters would talk about their duty as Guardians to protect Yuna, I found myself thinking. “What are you talking about? You guys haven’t done SHIT to protect Yuna, she’s all alone! Shut up Auron, even though you’re hot.”

What I essentially did was made another game within the larger game of FFX; a game where instead of being treated as a precious resource who was to be protected at all costs, Yuna was cast aside and had to fend for herself. While I’ve played through the storyline of FFX normally a few times, I can’t think of the game now without thinking of this “alternate” game, where all of Yuna’s companions abandoned her every single battle; hundreds, probably thousands of times over the course of the game.

To this day, I’m not sure how to feel about this. On the one hand, I proved that a challenge that people assumed impossible was not, and that’s kind of cool. On the other hand, I projected my problems onto this game, and spent dozens of hours staring at Yuna’s back when I could have been doing something to actively fix my problems. Maybe in a way I was addressing my problems, and I needed to do something like the Yuna No-Summoning Challenge to process what was even happening to me, but that’s an area of inquiry that goes beyond the scope of this discussion.

My torrid affair with Yuna was the only time I did a “challenge” with very specific parameters, but I’ve still spent plenty of time making games-within-games, albeit in a less anal manner. I’ve played the quest mode in Ehrgeiz as a religious zealot, using the game’s obtuse (and usually ignored) religion system to power up my weapons and steamroll through the game. I’ve played Vagrant Story while only using certain weapons, or certain spells. I’ve played Parasite Eve with a kind of God Eater Aya, using odd exploits in the game to power up the character far beyond what’s necessary to complete it. I’ve played X-Men Legends in an effort to experience the kinds of team-ups I wanted to see happen in the comics, but never did.**

Even when I’m playing the game the “normal” way, I still have certain quirks that usually customize my playthrough to a certain extent. Since I like exploring mechanics and hate replaying boss fights, I’m usually stupidly overleveled in any game with a leveling system. I also hoard items like a Doomsday prepper, regardless of whether or not I actually need them. I enjoy picking my favorite characters and giving them “Most Favorite Character” status: giving them all the best weapons and armor and stat boosts, while their teammates lag behind. This is especially satisfying to do when my MFC is technically one of the weaker ones, and I make her into an insane powerhouse for no earthly reason.

To return to my earlier point, I think having these kinds of customized gaming experiences are very much like my special meeting-of-the-minds with Kandinsky. I know I’m looking at the game in perhaps a different way than was strictly intended, yet looking at it in more than one way makes my personal connection that much more powerful. However, in traditional art, the personal experience is expressed as a kind of declaration: “To me, this painting is about ____”. In video games, it’s more of a dialogue with the game’s creators. Why did you make this character do this, when she could have done that? Why are you trying to encourage me to fight this boss now, when I still have imaginary crops to grow? Why are you trying to sell me on the power of friendship, when I feel more alone than I’ve ever been?

Let’s Play (Another Version of) This: Gaming As Performance Art

I didn’t record my YONS challenge; it was still hard to record gameplay at that time, and to be fair, it wouldn’t have made for very interesting viewing anyway. But the growing popularity of Let’s Plays adds several more dimensions to this idea that we create customized narratives and experiences within games. With an LP you can:

A) broadcast your customized narrative, so other people get the benefit of seeing the game through your eyes

and

B)Turn your gaming experience into a kind of performance art, using custom images, songs, and even roleplaying to add an element of improv theater to your gaming.

and

C)Turn your gaming experience into a communal experience of performance art, with viewers sharing their own custom art, songs and roleplaying.

Obviously I find the artistic possibilities of Let’s Plays and other performative gaming events to be fascinating, but let’s not ignore the obvious; a lot of LPs, perhaps most, are not worth watching. Most are riddled with lines like “I thought there was a health potion over here in this corner, oh wait it’s a green herb,” stuff about the logistics of playing that doesn’t add much to the experience. In a lot of cases the only reason to watch an LP is either because you’re such a huge fan of the game that you’ll watch any content related to it, or you’re stuck somewhere in your own first playthrough and are trying to figure out where you need to go next.

Sometimes though…sometimes people hit it out of the park. Take this Animal Crossing Screenshot LP, where someone turned a seemingly innocuous children’s game into a harrowing tale of psychological horror. Some LP’s can become hilarious screwball comedies, others can introduce a level of poignancy that wasn’t in the original game, particularly when the player shares a personal story that resonates with the games themes. I don’t know if I would consider Let’s Playing an art form– it’s more a weird, bastard child of several art forms, including theater and graphic novels– but to deny that there’s at least an element of art to a good LP seems quite ignorant to me.

Not only that, but the community that can build around an LP– suggesting strategies, coming up with character names, drawing LP-specific fanart, or just making funny quips at the right time– is also a creative entity. It’s art spiraling out and creating more and more art, as art in general tends to do, but this time, maybe even more so.

LPing may not be the most fascinating thing in the world, but let me put it this way; if there aren’t at least 20 Master’s Theses being written about LPing in Media Studies departments all over the world,  right this second, then I no longer have any hope for academia. Because you can scoff if you want, but this is the future of art; not all art, certainly, and not all the time, but some art. Maybe even Art with a Capital A.

In the third and final article of this series, we’ll look at some of the arguments against games being art and why they’re all shallow and dumb break them down a little bit.

*I’m a big FFX fan so OF COURSE I know that the most powerful character in the game is actually Wakka once you get Attack Reels, don’t send me hatemail. Or, do send me hatemail, that sounds interesting, just not about Wakka. 

**Just FYI, Jean Grey is stupidly overpowered in the original X-Men Legends. I mean, canonically, she should be, but what’s kind of funny is I think it might have been accidental.